There is no doubt that driving in the winter poses some unique challenges. Freezing drizzle, blizzards and icy patches in the road can all make your daily commute a bit more complicated. Bears probably have the right idea -- they just curl up and hibernate until spring makes the world a little less harsh. That works well for them, but for the rest of us who have jobs and kids and errands to run, here are a few ideas for driving safely in the winter:
- Wait awhile. If at all possible, try to postpone getting on the road after a snowstorm until the plows and salt trucks have had a chance to make a few passes.
- Plan ahead. If you will be making a long drive, be sure to check the weather forecast and plan accordingly. If you must travel, allow yourself extra time in inclement weather.
- Keep it clean. Before heading out, be sure that all of your windows and lights are completely clear of snow and ice. Cleaning small patches on your front and rear windshields is nowhere near sufficient.
- Light your path. Snowy, overcast conditions can dramatically reduce your visibility. Use your headlights to help other drivers see you.
- Slow down, even if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle. You may be able to get through the snow better than other cars, but your ability to stop is no greater than anyone else's.
- Give 'em some space. Use extra caution and allow more distance between you and the car in front of you. Icy, slippery conditions are certain to increase your braking distance; it can take up to three times as far to come to a stop on an icy road than on dry pavement.
- Start and turn with care. Two of the most common times for your vehicle to skid are when accelerating from a stop and when making a turn. Do both in a slow manner and you will minimize the chances of sliding sideways. If you do find yourself in a skidding situation, take your foot off the gas pedal and steer your car carefully (no jerking motions) in the direction that you wish to go.
- Expect the unexpected. Even if the roads look pretty clean, when the temperatures are freezing it is best to assume that there will be some icy patches. Light coatings of fresh snow frequently cover solid ice, so use extreme caution.
- Black ice can be deadly. When snow has melted and refrozen, it sometimes forms a very slick layer known as "black ice." The biggest problem with black ice is that unlike heavy layers of snow or ice, black ice is frequently invisible to drivers. Because of this, many drivers first realize they are on black ice when their vehicle is spinning out of control. When temperatures are right near the freezing point, be aware that black ice may be present and reduce your driving speed.
- Hit the brakes. It is vital that you know the proper way to brake safely. If you have anti-lock brakes, do not "pump" the brakes. You must stomp hard on the brake and maintain that pressure while steering carefully to a safe stop. If you are unsure about the type of brakes in your vehicle, check your owner's manual or call the service department of your dealership.
- Tires matter. Tires lose about one pound of air pressure for each 10-degree drop in temperature. Be sure to keep your tires inflated to the manufacturer's specifications.
Additionally, you might want to consider using mud/snow tires during the winter months. These tires are allowed in all states and can be installed in sets of two, replacing the regular tires on the drive wheels. For all-wheel drive vehicles, you must replace all four tires.
Metal studded tires can be helpful as well, but are not legal everywhere. If you are uncertain, call your local police department to see if you can use studded tires in your state.
Another possibility is tire chains. Chains must be installed on the drive wheels, so be sure to confirm whether your car is front wheel or rear wheel drive. In some extremely snowy or mountainous areas, tire chains may be required; check with the authorities in your area, and make sure that you or someone in the car can properly place the chains on the wheels.
- Maintain your vehicle. As part of basic car maintenance, ask your mechanic to check that your battery is adequately charged, that your windshield wipers are in good condition, and that your washer reservoir is filled with antifreeze washer fluid.
- Buckle up. Although it is important to wear your seatbelt in all driving conditions (and to meet legal requirements), it is especially important to give yourself the extra protection of a safety belt during the adverse driving conditions common in the winter.
- Be prepared. No matter how careful you are, you still may find yourself stuck in the snow. Be sure to carry a few emergency supplies with you during the winter months. A warm blanket or two, a bag of kitty litter for traction, a small shovel, jumper cables, road flares, a first aid kit, bottled water and some nutritional, nonperishable snacks just might come in handy.